How To: Dress for Ice Climbing

I recently wrote a post for Kam of Campfire Chic on how to dress for ice climbing.  The article is geared towards beginners and I came up with the idea of writing it because when I first started, I found it really hard to figure out what the heck I was supposed to wear.  Although you’re outside all day like skiing, you definitely do NOT want to wear the same thing you would skiing.  And unlike snowshoeing or cross country skiing, when you ice climb there are periods of activity and inactivity and you need to be prepared for both.  So how do you dress for two extremes? Well, you’ll have to check out my post on Kam’s site to find out!

Click on the picture to check out my post!

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Ice climbing & shoulder injuries

It’s been a while since I’ve written on here. I don’t know why but I haven’t felt particularly motivated of late. I think it’s a result of having a lot going on. Since winter started I’ve been really busy skiing, holiday-ing, then rehab-ing. First hubby took a fall skiing and hurt his knee, then my shoulders started acting up. We’ve both been keeping our physio in business with weekly visits x2. Good news is that his strained ligaments and my rotator cuff tendonitis should both heal up in a few weeks and we’ll be back to (mostly) normal.

My shoulders have actually been bothering me for over a year and after switching to a physio who focuses on sports injuries I’m feeling more optimistic about it. It’s interesting because a few other girls I climb with regularly have experienced similar shoulder issues. Seems like with enough climbing, this type of overuse injury comes up in one form or another. I think that going forwards, if I plan on keeping up this level of climbing I’ll have to take up some kind of upper body workout that will help balance out all my muscle groups. Here’s an interesting post from Steph Davis on the topic of shoulder injuries.

The only climbing I did this month was two ice climbing trips. The first trip was my 3rd annual girls ice weekend. My friend L. and I have started a tradition where we go to Canmore, book a hotel with hot tub and enjoy ice climbing and catching up on life. This year we signed up for one of Sarah Hueniken’s courses and it was a blast. It was really nice to spend a full 2 days working on technique and I feel like mine has improved exponentially! I even got on some fun mixed climbs. It worked out well because the next weekend I had signed up for an “Intro to leading ice” course for girls with Sarah through the Alpine Club of Canada.

Backpacks all hung in a row - keeps the critters out!

Thanks for the photographic evidence Sarah H. :)

I have to be honest, my intention when signing up for that course was not to actually lead but just to have fun learning and practising some basic skills. When we all met in Canmore to discuss the day’s plans, I was a bit intimidated when it seemed everyone but me was set on doing their first lead that day. Of course as we went around that’s not what came out of my mouth – apparently I ‘planned’ on doing a lead that day too! Ha! I really enjoyed doing a bunch of mock leads but as the day progressed, I was a bit nervous knowing I’d have to make a call at some point whether I’d lead or not. When the time came, I decided to go for it thanks in large part to Sarah H.’s encouragement. She really knows how to help you push yourself!! A few screws were pre-placed and I added screws as I went up. The route was ~WI3 and I made it about 2/3 up before I ran out of screws. While it was scary – it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. While I wish I had saved some screws to get higher, I’m just too darned proud of myself to care!

Nothing like a feeling of accomplishment to end off my January! And a fuschia softshell jacket from Patagonia at half price :)

Mixed Master*

This Saturday I joined the Alpine Club of Canada for a girls ice & mixed climbing day at Haffner Creek, which is a quick 20 min walk from the parking lot on the 93 south of Louise.  Interestingly, as we drove in you could see avalanche debris and splintered trees pushed to the sides of the road which had been closed two weeks ago due to an avalanche.  I’d never seen that kind of debris up close.  On a not-so-interesting note, this was the third weekend in a row of bad road/avalanche conditions. Next year I need to remember not to overdo it with the pre-season powder dance!

By the time I geared up and was ready to go it was still really cold out.  On all of my previous ice climbs (which is not many given that I can count them!), it’s been relatively warm making the ice soft. I think this allowed me to get away with lot less technique when climbing.  This time the ice felt like rock and no matter how hard I swung or kicked, few of my tool or crampon placements felt really secure.  I had a great chat with our guide, Sarah Hueniken, about it and she gave me some good pointers on technique.  I’ve read a bit about it online but it was so helpful to have someone explain in person how to move so you can be more efficient.

There are three different lines up the ice and one mixed route on the left side that starts in the cave.

Having tried a low-angle mixed climb a few weeks ago, I wanted to try the very vertical mixed climbs at Haffner.  The first line had a rock & ice start leading up to a ledge, followed by a longer rock section, then onto overhanging ice above.

Un, I'm supposed to go up this?

Trying to move up onto the ice

Almost on the ice

The second climb started on rock then transitioned up and around the edge of an ice curtain.

There was ~8ft of rock up to the base of the hanging ice. At the bolt in the centre of the picture you move right, onto the ice

Maybe because I knew what to expect this time, I really enjoyed the climbing.  Scratch that, I loved the climbing!  I loved searching the rock for tool placements.  Foot placements were even trickier as you had to navigate one point of your crampon onto unreasonably small edges.  The climbing was delicate and technical but also very physical albeit in a different way from ice climbing.  You don’t need the power to swing your tools, but you need the upper body strength to pull up on them.  My favourite part of both climbs was the rock sections, perhaps because it’s the most similar to rock climbing.  It’s unbelievable the features you can weight your tool on.  The only thing you have to be careful of is how you pull on your tools once you place them.  Unless they’re in a crack, you need to pull directly down as they pop off very easily if you pull at an angle.  I may not have done either of the climbs in what amounts to any “style” but as a total beginner I think it’s pretty awesome that I made it to the top of an M7- and enjoyed myself.

Aside from the climbing, one of the highlights of my day was when I asked Sarah (the guide) if she could explain the best way to dress for ice climbing.  This question has been driving me nuts for I have yet to find a system that works well.  Also, I’m a bit of a type-A personality and really wanted to know in very specific detail what to wear.  Suffice to say, I now have a very clear picture of what I’ll be trying out next.  As soon as I perfect my system I’ll share (in detail!) what works for me.

*in case anyone is wondering, the “Mixed Master” in the title is (unfortunately) not in reference to my climbing skills.  It’s a mixed climb on the Icefields Parkway and I just liked the name.  Something to do with the alliteration …

Ice climbing, avalanche risk & gear love

Living near a mecca of ice climbing, this winter I decided to try a multi-pitch ice climb. I called my partner in crime who is also the only girl I know crazy enough to join me, and we picked a weekend for our adventure.  We’d both done some top-roping before and were really psyched to try something new.  Neither of us can lead ice so my good friend and guide Patrick got the honours of leading us ladies (no pun intended – haha).

The problem with planning things in advance is that mountain weather runs on its own schedule.  Checking the forecast I could see that a perfect storm was brewing for avalanche conditions.  By Friday night Patrick confirmed what I had been thinking, plans were going to have to change.  It’s always a little disappointing when things don’t work out the way you envisioned, especially when you can’t wait around indefinitely for better conditions.  Thankfully Patrick had a wicked backup plan in mind and really, any climbing is great when you’re with friends!

Avalanche risk

I joked that next time I pray for an epic weekend, I’m going to have to start specifying which part I want to be epic!  Apparently the Rockies are experiencing a “once in 30 years” avalanche cycle;  the Trans-Canada highway was closed for 5 days, there were 3 fatalities over the weekend and many unusually large avalanches were reported.  Having recently taken an avalanche safety course, I had a good appreciation for how bad conditions were and was glad Pat had able to find somewhere safe for us to climb.  The mountains will always be there and you want to make sure that you will as well!

Ever seen something like this? It's from the Banff NP avalanche bulletin.

If you’re going out in the Rockies this winter be sure to check the avalanche bulletins first.  Another great resource is @ParksMtnSafety (Banff National Park) or @KCPublicSafety (Kananaskis) on twitter.

Climbing on …

We headed to the Junkyards in Canmore which most people know as a top-roping area.  There’s actually a lot more to it and  we spent the morning practicing moving up and down as a group of three.  In retrospect I think it worked out well because the next time we climb together, we’ll be that much more efficient.  There’s a lot more to seconding than just cleaning draws/screws and the better you are at it, the better your climbing experience will be.

The mixed climbing is to the left

After, we tried a mixed climbing which is something I’ve been wanting to do as it’s always intrigued me.  Watching Patrick climb the mixed route was like watching a beautifully choreographed dance.  Me … not so much.  Trying to place crampons and axes on snow-covered rock and thin ice is very different from rock or ice climbing but the challenge is strangely satisfying.  One piece of advice? – don’t swing your axe, place it gently.  Whack the rock once and you won’t need any reminders not to do it again!

My gear

I’m always interested in knowing is what other people wear ice climbing and what does or doesn’t work so that being said, here’s what I wore and some suggestions:

  1. Footwear: Scarpa Mont Blanc GTX mountaineering boots (plus wool socks/Superfeet insoles). I’ve only worn these boots twice but they have been great so far & very warm.
  2. Bottoms: Light synthetic leggings & waterproof insulated ski-pants.  Unless you have a death wish for your ski-pants, wear gaiters or get a pair of tighter fitting pants.  Speaking from experience, crampons will catch on your pants if they’re too baggy.
  3. Top: Synthetic tank top, merino long sleeve shirt, synthetic long sleeve shirt, Patagonia down sweater & hardshell.  All in that order. It might seem like overkill on the layers but both my girlfriend and I wore roughly the same thing and neither of us felt too cold or too hot.
  4. Belay jacket:  First Ascent mountain guide hooded down jacket.  I wore it over my hardshell in the morning when it was cold then packed it away as it warmed up.
  5. Hands: I love my thin waterproof mittens and wanted them to work so badly but I’ll concede, gloves would have been better.  Nothing sucks more than trying to clip or unclip a draw and getting your mitt stuck in the gate.  Mittens are fine to belay in but I’d rather climb with thin softshell gloves.  If you’re just top-roping, thin mitts would be fine though.